New York City native and chef Ian Alvarez has always had a habit of tucking away abstract ideas of what he’d like to do. When, in 2014 his friend and business partner called to see if he wanted to take a look at a 38-seat spot in the East Village, he knew right away — more than any other idea he had in his back pocket — that the marbled-counter, exposed-brick wall of a place would make for a great wine bar. That wine bar is Bara, a French-Japanese hybrid and downtown NYC favorite.
We had the chance to talk with Ian recently, who speaks like a humble, fortunate discoverer of the place that was always meant exist in just that spot. He filled me in on the source of his inspiration, how Instagram has changed his business and why every restaurateur should know how to snake a drain.
Of all the restaurants you could’ve tried, why’d you decide to open up a French Japanese place?
When I first started cooking I didn’t have much of an idea of what type of cuisine I wanted to get into but it just so happened that I was always working for a classically trained chef. When I started about 10 years ago, most of the restaurants were a mixture of casual and fine dining and every time I moved to a different restaurant I was always working for a French guy, so I was always refining my French technique. But I always loved Japanese cooking. When I worked with David Chang at momofuku I realized that a lot of people working in restaurants came through [Daniel] Boulud places so when I started to think about the space I had to work with, I thought it would be some intimate wine bar thing, like what you’d find in Paris. The Japanese equivalent was an izakaya, and I realized there was a lot of overlap between the two. Culturally, the French and Japanese are both really into food and dining. Wine bars and izakayas are where to go after work, and both places are such that you could jump in for a quick bite or spend your whole night there.
What’s it like running a restaurant in the East Village? Does the location affect what you’re doing at all?
It feels pretty East Village to me. I grew up in the city. I’ve been hanging out in the East Village since the mid 90s. West Village — it might be a little too stripped down. We listen to whatever music we want, there are no uniforms, everybody’s a professional and everybody’s having an experience with people. They don’t act a certain way or speak a certain way. We can get away with it in a way that you can’t really do in the West Village or Midtown. Certain parts of Brooklyn, yeah, but it’s very much an East Village spot.
In what ways does technology affect the way you do business?
The whole social media part of it is something that’s been huge. Instagram, definitely. I actively try to promote through Instagram, and then one day someone with thousands of followers will come in. The next day I’ll have so many people calling me for reservations. It’s part of running the business now. We try and post every single day to keep ourselves out there. It’s free, and as long as you’re putting the work in you can actually see the benefits.
Have you seen any surprising dining trends in New York that you hope will stick around?
One big cultural shift in restaurants — a lot of the no reservation policies are disappearing (the idea that a place is so exclusive they don’t even take reservations). I think people were starting to get a little burned out and hospitality in general is starting to become really important again. A lot of restaurants that didn’t take reservations before are now taking them. With all of the dining and reservation apps out there, you want to be visible — it’s just one more way for people to find you and get to you. I think it’s for the better because now it means that making a good experience for the guest is paramount. Before, the convenience of the restaurant took priority.
Where’s your favorite go-to place in NYC?
The Good Fork in Redhook, Brooklyn has been around for going on 12 years now. It’s right on the water and has this other-worldly quality to it. If you didn’t know it, you might not realize you’re even in New York still. The woman who created it, Sohui, has a really great background. And it’s in this really funky, hand-built space that’s always changing and trying new things. In many ways it’s a spiritual, sister restaurant to us. They value treating themselves and their employees well. I love that place and that part of town.
Thinking back to any unexpected challenges you faced when opening Bara, what advice would you give to aspiring restaurateurs?
First thing is, if you want to open up your own restaurant, you should learn how to do basic maintenance — from refrigeration to fixing the stove or fryer to caulking to basic plumbing. The more that you have the ability to troubleshoot little things and fix them, the more money you’ll save yourself. Chances are you’re going to have to snake a drain every once in a while, and if you have to call a plumber every time, well — basic maintenance you can learn. The more you can handle things in-house, the better off you’re going to be.
The second thing I would say is, no matter what, no matter who you are or how popular you are, do the PR thing from the beginning. Just use every opportunity to get your name out there. Especially in New York, there is so much competition. Just running a restaurant is a busy full-time job. If you’re ordering liquor, cooking and running the kitchen, PR is something that’s worth outsourcing.
The Reserve Editorial Team